The Ultimate Scholarship Essay: 21 Movie Review

A scholarship essay from start to finish, the Movie 21 keeps you enthralled. You can get inspiration, but more likely just entertained by this enjoyable movie. I’ll tell you all about it. But first…


Read at your own risk.

Using Blackjack to Beat Tuition

21 stars Jim Sturgess as MIT college student Ben Campbell, a math genius and hopeful med student. He plans to go to Harvard Medical School after graduation, and the movie takes place in his senior year at MIT. He has all A’s, and works at a men’s clothing store for $8 an hour. Why a math genius wants to be a doctor, I don’t know, except that they make serious money.

The movie starts with Ben applying for the prestigious Robinson Scholarship, which will pay all of his expenses for Harvard, a total of about $300,000. Wow. While discussing his qualifications with a representative of the scholarship, Ben learns what he is up against. The scholarship went to a one legged immigrant. He worries he doesn’t have what it takes, and starts looking for better ways to make money.

Enter Professor Micky Rosa and Kate Bosworth as fellow MIT student and blackjack card counter Jill Taylor. With help from others on the team, they recruit Ben, promising him large sums of cash.

Card Counting, Codes, and Shuffle Tracking

Ben learns the simple art of card counting, and the team rules. The movie actually teaches fairly well how to count cards – not that I gamble. Truth is, you have to track the shuffles, use multiple spotters counting multiple tables to find a hot deck and so on. Not the best way to make money for college.

And Ben wins enough money to pay for his expenses in med school, but he gets greedy. Of course, most players do. He loses the team’s whole stake, and Micky, who runs the team like a business, promises to find a way to make Ben repay the stake he lost, about $250K.

The Brass Rings

Of course, not to be outdone, Ben and Jill and the rest of the team decide to do it themselves. At this point, you meet Laurence Fishburne as Cole Williams, a security expert in loss prevention for the casinos. He and Ben don’t get along. To have a talk with Ben, Laurence ties him up and coaxes him into not gambling using large fists and a few metal rings. We’ll come back to this in a second.

Needless to say, Ben doesn’t make the money he needs for school going it alone. When he gets back to Boston, he has been denied graduation, an incomplete class, and, oh yeah, his professor, Dr. Rosa, has robbed him of over $300K which he stashed in his room.

Seriously poor planning that I assume he did to avoid paying taxes on his 21 winnings. I would have suggested a safe deposit box, or a mini-storage unit. He could have also claimed his winnings and paid taxes, then put them into a normal bank. Added bonus: not illegal, while avoiding taxes is. Keep this in mind as you earn money for college and write scholarship essays.

The Plot Twist

As a last resort, Ben decides to beg Dr. Rosa for another chance. They decide to go one more time, and for some unknown reason, go to the same casino that busted Ben last time…

And if you didn’t figure this out, it turns out to be a trap. Going back to that friendly beating Cole gave Ben, he promised him one night of looking the other way if Ben brings in Micky Rosa. And if you didn’t see this coming, Cole also takes Ben and Jill’s winnings…

But Ben knows other MIT students good at math who have never been seen at the casino. He brings his friends along, so he does leave with a few bucks, and with his friendships renewed. And a graduate of MIT.

Later, his best friend points out Ben has had a great experience. Which is when 21 returns to the scholarship essay. Ben meets with the representative again and summarizes his scholarship essay for him, to receive a suitable response, dazzling.

Origins of 21 the Movie

The movie 21 entertained me, which is all I ask of a good movie. It includes a few strip club scenes for some reason, probably because it takes place largely in Las Vegas, and some people expect that. I didn’t need them, and they add nothing to the plot. I think you just need to know that the team lives it up part of the time they are in Vegas. Also, Ben and Jill do find some time to have a relationship. Aaaah, isn’t that sweet…

21 is based on Bringing Down The House, by Ben Mezrich about an MIT blackjack team in 1993. I saw the summary version on the Discovery Channel (I think) in 2003 or so. The movie dramatizes the story of the Reptile team. By the way, Micky Rosa, the sleazy conninving professor, was a complete fabrication - no one associated with the team resembled him.

The Amphibian team has a separate story, though similar. Mezrich wrote a book about them also, called Busting Vegas: The MIT Whiz Kid Who Brought The Casinos To Their Knees. Who knows – maybe it will become a movie, too.

The team did win large amounts of money, but probably not as much as in the movie. And they did get shut down, by winning too much at too many casinos. Card counting, as far as I know, doesn't break any laws, but casinos don't allow you to gamble if they catch you doing it. The real life team had to shut down because all the casinos knew them – and they did play many casinos, not just one.

Last, remember, this is a movie. Some of the real players now have businesses teaching people how to play blackjack, but the scholarship essay was just part of the moviemaking. Hope you like it.

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I don't write about movies much, but I love watching them. And if they relate to college, I write them up. If you know anyone who likes movies and wants to go to college or find more money for college, send them the link.

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